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U.S. general: We tell the Iraqi government their bases are being attacked

Maj. Gen. Joel
Maj. Gen. Joel "JB" Vowell and Chief of Staff of the Estonian Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Enno Mõts. Source: Eesti kaitsevägi

Commander of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) mission in Iraq Major General Joel "JB" Vowell told ERR, during a visit to Baghdad, Iraqi forces help the mission confront attacks on military bases but called on the government to do more. He also said that Estonia's contribution to the mission is "tremendous".

ERR was in Baghdad as part of President Alar Karis' visit, which is the official trip by an Estonian president to Iraq.

Approximately 100 Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) personnel are on active service in the country as part of OIR. By participating, Estonia is increasing the security of Europe and NATO, the Ministry of Defense says.

The U.S.-led mission aims to defeat Daesh and increase regional stability by Iraqi and autonomous Kurdistan armed forces.

While Daesh has mostly been beaten back, there are still pockets of fighters in both Iraq and Syria. It is also not clear what will become of nearly 40,000 Daesh members in prison camps in northern Syria. But it is now up to the local armed forces to counter the radicals. Allies help with advice.

However, since the start of the Gaza war, allied bases in Iraq and Syria have been attacked almost 150 times.

In an interview, OIR head Maj. Gen. Joel "JB" Vowell discussed the recent attacks near army bases, the OIR mission and its goals, the role of the U.S., and regional security.

ESTCOY-18 in Iraq. Source: Estonian Defense Forces

Speaking about Estonia's role in the mission, he said the contingent, based in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, has left the base many times since the attacks began to help recover debris from weapons which can then be identified to find out who carried out the attack.

He called the Estonians' contribution "tremendous" adding "It's a great force to have".

Speaking about the advisors in the "Advise, Assist, Enable" mission, he said: "You are critical enablers and a coalition force that provides a unique and different perspective on how to help, in this case, the Iraqi security forces."

"But overall, the advisors from Estonia, and others, do a great job to help promote that capability of operational effectiveness for the Iraqi security forces. We wouldn't be able to do this without their contribution... But we are extremely happy to work with them as partners." 

Read the interview below.

Maj. Gen. Joel "JB" Vowell. Source: Eesti kaitsevägi

Compared to the number of attacks that have taken place, there have not been many counterattacks from the U.S. Army and its allies. Why is that?

Well, number one, it's not our mission here. It is focused on defeating Daesh and the partner force development to do that.

However, I think my government is very clear that these attacks cannot continue, they impede the mission, they put lives at risk. And that we will attack and respond at a time and place of our choosing. And we've done that several times.

So no, I don't think the answer is that we haven't done anything. I think the answer is, our leadership has been very proportional, and very specific in the response. Unlike the militias who think that they should attack all the coalition everywhere, because we shouldn't be here.

And I remind everybody that the Iraqi government has invited all of us to be here, to help their partner forces and to help them defeat Daesh.

There are members in the government, it's a representative democracy, that don't want us here. And that's true. But at the main, I just talked to the prime minister the other day, and some other leaders, they do want us to be here.

Now, they don't want us here forever. Who does? Because (when) we should get to the mission accomplishment of Daesh, when their security forces are better, then we would transition our mission and go back to our home countries. I think that's a good outcome eventually.

But I would remind everybody, that our leadership is very serious, that we will respond at a time and place of our choosing and recondition deterrence between who's fighting us back to where it should be.

As you said, these attacks can not continue. Do you expect more assistance from the Iraqi army to answer these attacks?

They have. And when this started, in October, the first attacks we had, the Iraqi Security Forces weren't focused on this either. But we asked them to help us.

If you could think about a layered force protection concept. We're on the bases. And that's all we do. We don't go out into the countryside with them against Daesh. We advise them from locations and they go do it. That's where we are in our mission, which is a good place towards the end of our mission.

So we don't go outside the bases, we don't go to all these launch locations, we need them. There are 250,000 Iraqi security force personnel. So we asked them to do more. And they have.

I know this because we see where they are. I know this because we coordinate operations with them. I know this because when they have, they will catch launch materials, rocket rails, trucks with ballistic missile rails on the back. They find them because they're out searching. And they are getting out into the countryside, out looking in very challenging terrain, and they find these.

So we've asked them to help us because we can't find all of these places in Iraq. We're a very small organization, very small mission, but they have a lot of soldiers and it is their country. So we've asked them to do that. And to their credit, Iraqi security forces, the counterterrorism service, the CTS, have done what their prime minister also agrees and asked them to do: get out, disrupt these attacks, find out where these launch sites are.

They've been somewhat successful at doing that and that's also helped drive the intelligence where we think more might be coming from. We assess, that we would have had a lot more attacks, many more casualties had that not happened from the ISF.

Some analysts say these attacks are carried out by Iranian-backed groups that are somehow linked to the Popular Mobilization Core. And this unit is, in one way or another, part of the Iraqi security forces.

[The Popular Mobilization Core, or Hashd al-Shaabi, is the umbrella organization for more than 60 paramilitary units. Most of the units are pro-Iranian Shiites, but there are also some Kurds and Sunnis. Several bigger groups also have their own political wing, which played a role in assembling the current Iraqi government in the fall of 2022. – ed.]

Do you raise this issue among your Iraqi partners, and if so how?

It is a problem. They've claimed some of the groups are Shia-aligned militia groups that are calling themselves, under this umbrella, the resistance, the Muqawama, because they see us as occupiers. We don't see it that way, where at the invitation of the government if they want us to leave, they can ask us to leave.

I think we would have a lot of problems because the mission is not done. And we have some ways to show that. But that is a challenge. There are elements inside of the security services in the Popular Mobilization Core, the PMC. Some of those elements are involved in these attacks.

We work with the government of Iraq to try to negotiate this, to try to rein them back in. There have been some arrests, probably not enough. It's a political challenge inside the government of Iraq to do all those things, but we keep asking them to do more.

I think the prime minister is doing the best he can trying to neutralize this problem because it's coming from within Iraqi. These Iraqi citizens who are from Shia militias, under this umbrella term, the resistance, that are sporadically attacking coalition forces.

And a reminder your audience, we don't own the land here. These are Iraqi bases. They're Iraqi forces on these bases. Iraqi leadership of the country is right next door, two walls away. Same at other bases. We have two other bases here in Iraq. These aren't mine and there are a lot of coalition forces at these bases.

So we remind the government not to allow militia attacks to continue on your bases that put at risk your forces and coalition members at the same time. These are not American bases, they are not Estonia bases, they are Iraqi bases. And we've asked them to stop for those reasons. 

Unfortunately, there are emotions, that have run high. Some of these groups we haven't been able to fully rein in, as a result, the government has not fully been able to rein them in.

After the new government took office in Autumn 2022, there have been big personnel changes at the security agencies in Iraq and the Department of Defense. Some analysts say this has changed how Western allies share sensitive information with their Iraqi counterparts. Is this true?

One, I don't know how to answer that question because I don't know what we shared in 2021 versus now.

I will tell you that now, we stay as close as we can to our partners in Iraq. The Kurdish security forces, the other part of the security framework we're trying to help, and transform them into a more modern organization. So I don't know the answer to your question. I don't know any specifics and it would be wrong to guess.

I could tell your audience that we talk to the leadership of the country very soberly, and clearly about what we see as a threat and what the risks are. And just day to day we are coordinating operations, we do a lot of sharing. Sometimes the better intelligence, about where Daesh, is what we get from them because they're on the ground. And so we take what they have in our advising piece, and we go, based on what we see from that group, we traced this back, let's advise about how to go after this. That's where we partner with them.

So I think what I've seen is pretty good intel sharing. I think we're also realistic between the Iraqi leadership and us, that the challenge from Iran and the Shia-aligned militia groups, we share as much as we know, between each other that I know, but I can't comment on what we've done in the past.

I just know that the [Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al] Sudani leadership, since he's come on board in 2022 has been focused on building those relationships and being serious about our mission.

Estonia's focus is largely on the mission in Kurdistan. It seems to me that Kurdistan is a success story. They have a specific timetable for defense forces reforms until 2026.

[The units that make up Kurdistan's armed forces, known as the Peshmerga, have been divided between two rival political parties for years. As part of the reform that began in 2017, the Kurdistan government wants to bring these armed forces under a unified command. Estonian military advisers also contribute to the reform. According to current plans, the new Peshmerga should have around 125,000 fighters. – ed.]

At the same time, there have been setbacks during this reform. For example, last fall, the U.S. Department of Defense reduced the subsidy that is paid to the salaries of Peshmerga members. The subsidy was reportedly reduced from $20 million to $15 million per month. Will be possible to stick to the schedule until 2026?

That's the plan, our memorandum of understanding between both parties. So one, you talked about the salaries. That's part of the plan. Over time, each year, the salaries will progress downward. As we transform the military and their government picks up that piece, they will pick up the salary piece of that.

But we're starting the process. So our government has decided early on to pay the salaries of the soldiers as they transform. But the Kurdistan regional government will have to pick up the other piece next year and year after because it's going to decline. Our Congress, our taxpayer dollars have appropriated as for that, but it's not in perpetuity, it will go down in a few years to nothing as currently planned.

And that is a success story that you mentioned. We have Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Minister Shoresh, who's very serious about trying to realign the Peshmerga units from quite frankly, more northern-focused and southern-focus, with the political parties, into something more integrated, and can work with Iraqi security forces across the KCL or the Green Line.

And that's what we want. Integrated operations across that border, shared security responsibilities. I mean, we have a Daesh challenge in some of these places on the border. So if you have the integration of the Kurdish units and the Iraqi security forces together, that's a win.

We've seen some of those operations that have happened as recently as last fall, where they coordinate and do operations south of Erbil, north of Kirkuk where they do that across the border. We want more of that. So there are objectives and gates inside this partner force development plan of Peshmerga reform.

We're doing training with their divisions in February, a command post exercise that is much more modern than what they have now. That is a success story. We're gaining a lot of altitude, if I will, with those reforms. It just started. And I think that people are serious about making that transformation.

There are a lot of challenges on the road ahead. It's culturally different to have these forces work and integrate together. There's a lot of history with it doesn't work out very well. But I earnestly talked to their leaders just last week, they are really wanting to move forward.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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